A fiery slush slurps under his feet, fingers with sharp claws latch into black stones that fall through the deep cracks in the dry earth, exhausted by the ceaseless heat: a long tail drags behind, sliding through the evil slime, while wings hang lifelessly. A demon of the lowest order, Balthazar pushes in front of him and enormous wagon, packed high with the fallen souls of mages. The souls writhe, uttering curses and changing color from dark violet to black, emitting sparks in all directions. But nothing affects Balthazar, he just goes about his job – a job he had been doing for several hundred years, day after day. The Cleaner – that’s what the other residents of the underworld called him. On one hand it was offensive, and had demons been endowed with the ability to feel offense, then Balthazar certainly would have been offended. Spite, fury, indifference, rage, even fear – all of these he could experience, but not offence, joy or merriment.
The demon took a few more steps and stopped. Before him gaped a great abyss, from the bottom of which soul-wrenching sounds could be heard – the Chalice of Contempt was ready to receive a new consignment of fallen souls. Ignoring the frenzied screams from the wagon, Balthazar flipped it over with a practiced move and looked with supreme indifference at the howling mass that fell into the abyss. Now the mages would have their flesh stripped off and be sent to some dismal little world where they would live the ordinary life of a person, or perhaps a gnome, or some vile serpent, while their souls would be forever swallowed by the Chalice of Contempt. A wave of mild curiosity washed across the demon. For many years he had been collecting the souls of the fallen and bringing them to be judged in the Chalice, he was absolutely sure that the souls are facing a terrible fate, that of living an ordinary life, devoid of magic! But what about his own life? How is it any better than the ‘ordinary’ life in store for the mages? The thought pierced his mind like a needle.
At one time he had planned (not dreamed, demon’s don’t dream) to achieve something with his life, and to take his place with the other demons of the upper estates, those ferocious and terrible villains who are able to keep entire peoples, cities, worlds subdued in fear. But he turned out to be a failure. Despite his hideous, fear-inspiring appearance and his remarkable strength, he remained a lower-level demon, a ‘cleaner’. And now something new, unfamiliar and unexpected was bubbling up in his mind and suddenly, having bubbled over, it completely paralyzed his usual thought processes and only one clear thought emerged. His life was crap! And so was he…. And then Balthazar understood that things could not continue as they were. He turned sharply, accidentally felling a couple of charred trees, and he ran. Straight at the Chalice of Contempt. Right into the abyss. Let it swallow him and put an end to his miserable life! Let it do whatever it wanted: melt him, turn him into a worm, a plant; even erase him from the lists written in the Book of Destiny, anything would be better than continuing to be a cleaner in the underworld!
Balthazar’s stamping feet made the ground shudder, it seemed that it was about to rend asunder and fall like a house of cards. A few steps more and the abyss would swallow him up and give him the sweet release of death! So be it! Better death than this useless life! Pushing himself off the ground for the last time, the demon jumped and for a moment he felt he was a bird – the sensation of flight was overpowering. And suddenly it was as if the grey, smoky air shattered, palpitated, shuddered and turned viscous. His body was encircled by a shroud and he was carried along by some invisible force, but not downward into the abyss, rather into the distance, through wondrous corridors, faster and faster. Balthazar no longer had any thoughts or emotions; he had surrendered completely to the power of the unknown demon. His flight ended just as suddenly as it started – there was a noise, like a cocoon splitting open, and Balthazar plummeted downwards, head over heels, bringing stones and shrubbery with him and then with a huge crash, he landed, colliding with something hot and hard.
At first he was unable to open his eyes – not because he was afraid, but because he knew that from this moment his new life would begin and he needed to prepare himself. But he did not have time to gather his thoughts. The sounds could be heard of an enraged crowd, drawing inexorably closer, growing louder, the clash of metal, stamping of hundreds of feet and the sound of a clear voice nearby, issuing the order: ‘Charge! Rip the horned freak to pieces! Kill the monster!’ Not a second passed before Balthazar was attacked by a horde of strange beings, that looked as if they had been woven from fire. They were armed to the teeth and their eyes were all filled with one desire – to destroy him, Balthazar! Then his demonic nature took over. From the depths of his consciousness, fury burst forth, a crazed rage that poured over his body infusing his fists with power and driving his claws and teeth to rip flesh, shred bodies and snap bones. His mind only issued simple instructions: terrify, conquer, destroy! So, it seemed that his new life would finally give him the chance of proving that he is not a failure, not a cleaner, but a real beast, a demon with a capital ‘D’, capable of reducing these creatures, with lava instead of blood, to dust. He would force them to bend to his will – the will of the great and terrible demon Balthazar! This world, Faeo, or whatever the fiery creatures called it, would be his dominion! What an opportunity! A sensation akin to madness washed over Balthazar. He emitted a crazed roar and launched himself into battle.